Vertigorecommended viewing

That obscure object of desire
★★★★★
Released: 
1958
Director: 
Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: 
James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
The Setup: 
Man assigned to follow wife becomes obsessed with her.
Discussion: 

Mmmmm, Vertigo. Perhaps its because I has just watched The Bridge, about suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge, the night before, that I eschewed everything I had from Netflix and felt compelled to pull Vertigo off my shelf, but whatever the reason, one knows that a night with Vertigo is going to be a good night. This film is unique among Hitchcock’s works for its elliptical uncanniness and personal, psychological interest [as opposed to mechanics of plot], and as such generated warmer, more personal feelings in its viewers. It’s also just banging on all cylinders and has a banquet of technique to feast on.

We open with a close-up of Kim Novak’s face. We move into her eye, where colored spirals start to emerge and sprout out within each other—one of titles designer Saul Bass’ most famous sequences. While this is going on we hear the lushly romantic theme music by Bernard Herrmann, which plays a more noticeable role in this film than many of his others—the score is often front and center. We then move into a police chase across rooftops. The criminal jumps across an alley. The first policeman follows him, but Scottie Ferguson, that’s James Stewart, slips and hangs from the roof. When he looks down, the alley below seems to stretch beneath him, a now-familiar effect accomplished by pulling the camera back while simultaneously zooming in. The other policeman gives up the chase to come help Ferguson, but Ferguson’s dizziness [his Vertigo] prevents him from acting, and the policeman falls to his death.

We now see Scottie at the apartment of his friend Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, a commercial fashion illustrator. You begin to notice that long views of San Francisco are often visible outside windows in this film. They discuss a bra Midge has hanging out for work, and learn that the two of them were engaged for three weeks during college, and that while Midge dates other men, her heart still burns for Scottie alone. Scottie informs up that he has retired from the police force, due to his vertigo, and clearly feels a wound to his pride—he is impotent, work-wise. He mentions that an old buddy now in the shipbuilding business has contacted him.

Scottie visits the guy, who wants to hire him as a private detective. He claims that his wife has been possessed by the ghost of her long-dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez. Both discuss how this is insane, and it seems unusual for Hitchcock to dip into anything truly supernatural, but the introduction of supernatural possibilities serve to open the viewer’s mind to the larger, uncanny themes it will traffic in for its duration.

Scottie follows the woman, Kim Novak as an incarnation of the classic Hitchcock blonde, and sees her dining with her husband at a restaurant. This scene is key to the entire film. The restaurant is a bright, vibrant red, and Madeline, the wife, is wearing a black and vivid green dress. Green and red are of course complementary colors, that throw off great vibrations when placed together. One should start to become aware of the conscious use of red and green throughout the film. Don’t worry, I’ll point it out. Anyway, in a very ostentatious shot, Madeline comes to stand directly behind Scottie, and the camera watches her as she walks close into profile, holds for a while—this is the MOMENT Scottie’s obsession begins—and continues by, walking away. The first time I saw this film, at this moment I said “A-HA! This is where ALL of David Lynch comes from” [The Lynch of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet… he has since moved on]. This is a great example of Hitchcock knowing when to use a noticeable shot to let you know that something important is happening at THIS moment.

The next day Madeline takes her green car out, and Scottie follows. He follows her into the rear door of a flower shop, where we get this fantastic shot [above] of him watching her as she is reflected in the mirror—the kind of thing imitated in countless later films. He then follows her to a church, and watches her stand at the grave of Carlotta. I think I read that those red flowers in the foreground had to be placed there just for the shot, by the way. She then goes to the art museum, where she sits gazing at the portrait of Carlotta. Scottie notices that her bouquet is exactly the same as Carlotta’s in the painting, as is the little curl in her hair. The camera closes in on the hole created by the curl in her hair [below], and if you don’t see some sexual subtext in this, it’s because you’re in elementary school. By the way, you’ll notice how the guard just GIVES Scottie a catalog of the museum. Those were the days. He then follows her to this boarding hotel, where she somehow eludes him.

Scottie gets Midge to introduce him to a local historian who knows the Carlotta Valdez story. You’ll notice that Midge is only too happy to help. Anyway, so back in the day, Carlotta married this guy and was moved into a huge mansion—which is now the hotel he just saw Madeline in. Her husband left her and took her kid, and she was stuck all alone in the big house and eventually went mad and was seen wandering the streets. So the next day Scottie continues following Madeline, and goes to all the old haunts, then down under the Golden Gate Bridge, where she parks—and throws herself in! Not really a very convincing suicide, which Scottie doesn’t think about, ever. He fishes her out and takes her home.

SPOILERS > > >
So Scottie’s chilling at home, Madeline’s dress is dripping dry in the bedroom—and she’s naked in his bed. The fact that he must have undressed her and, well, we don’t know what, is never mentioned but abundantly obvious. She gets dressed. You’ll notice that she is now wearing a bright red robe and Scottie is wearing a green sweater. They talk a little bit and he tells her what happened. You’ll notice toward the end he reaches for her hand and touches it—then the phone rings. It’s a small thing, but note that before Scottie let’s go of her hand, he gives her knuckle a little rub. She leaves—we see her tie her hair up in the famous curl—and who should be outside, but Midge, who gets the wrong idea.

He takes Madeline out the next day, they go walking among the redwoods, and at a certain point she seems to become possessed by Carlotta. Once back, Madeline says she’s getting to be the age Carlotta was when she died, and complains of being drawn to commit suicide. She tells him of her recurring dream of a tower—like in Spain. They end up kissing on the beach—watch how the wave CRASHES as their passion takes flight!

Now comes one of my favorite little scenes, just because it seems so tangentially related and a sudden burst of unexpected feeling suddenly blazes through. Scottie goes over to Midge’s asking why she was “so desperate to see me.” You’ll notice that Midge is wearing red, with matching red glasses. She eventually alludes to a new painting she’s working on, and when Scottie goes to look at it, he finds that she has painted a parody of the portrait of Carlotta, only with herself as the main figure. Look at the frame above and see how Hitchcock arranges Midge to match her position in the painting. Anyway, Scottie doesn’t find the painting funny at all, and leaves suddenly. Then—and this is the sudden flare of feeling I mentioned—Midge pulls at her own hair and shouts “Stupid! Stupid!” For me personally, this is one of the most endearing things about the movie—the whole thing is so controlled and constructed, the sudden eruption of this unruly emotion really stands out. The figure of Midge herself is also a little sad—and intriguing because she plays no real role in the story. She’s just there to contrast against Madeline… Midge is also cute and blonde, but not tragic and dangerous the way Madeline is. In fact, creating this painting is probably a way for her to make herself seem less safe and a bit more edgy. By the way, we only see Midge once more in the film, in which she is decidedly less central—she really has screwed herself.

The next day Madeline comes by Scottie’s, all upset. She’s had the dream again, and Scottie recognizes the place as a mission just a few miles away, figuring she must have been there when she was a child, and if she sees it again, she can be free of the dream and be cured. By the way—no mention that she is still married to Scottie’s old friend, which could prove a complication to their romance. They go down to the old mission, which brings all the old memories back to Madeline. They kiss passionately in the stable, when Madeline gets all “It’s too late!” and runs off. She runs into a church—note the virtual repetition of the same shot from earlier, when she went out the back door to the graveyard; Hitchcock is starting to use repeated images to tip us off-kilter—and up the tower. Scottie follows, but has attacks of vertigo on the way up. They prevent him from following her, then he hears a scream and sees her falling from the tower. She lies dead on the tile roof below.

Incidentally, Hitchcock was originally told that he couldn’t do this zoom-in/dolly-back shot, because it would too expensive to rig a crane to do the move vertically. So he had the idea to make a model of the tower shaft that they could place on its side, and accomplish the shot horizontally.

So Scottie faces a tribunal on the death, during which he is not found guilty, although the man presiding over it leaves no doubt of his disdain for Scottie and his “affliction,” holding him responsible for “doing nothing” while anyone else would have been able to save her. Then Scottie is seen in a hospital bed, and has a crazy animated dream in which we see Carlotta’s bouquet endlessly open up, flashes of color, and Scottie’s head shooting down an endless tunnel. It’s quite a departure from the rest of the film, and may seem a little silly, but it’s important to the rest of the film for us to understand that Scottie’s mind has snapped. When we next see him, he is in a nursing home—this is where we briefly glimpse Midge, come to visit him.

When he gets out, he spends his days aimlessly revisiting the places he went with Madeline, continually thinking he sees her. You’ll notice that Hitchcock cleverly uses Novak herself when Scottie sees a woman in the distance, but switches her with a different actress as she gets closer. Soon enough he runs into someone that looks very much like her, but has dark hair. This is Judy Barton. He follows her around, then follows her to her room, and insists on talking to her. You’ll notice that she is wearing green, and will be highly identified with green for the rest of the movie. Scottie extracts a promise to join him at dinner. She packs her bags, about to leave town, and sits down to write him a letter explaining everything. The deal is this: Scottie never met the actual Madeline. Her husband blackmailed Judy, an actress, to pose as his wife for Scottie and get her to believe that she believed she was possessed. The husband knew Scottie could never climb the tower, so he hid there, with the real corpse of his wife. When Judy came in, the husband dumped the body of the real wife, and in one stroke, made Scottie the witness and primarily responsible for her death. Then, immediately after writing this letter—she tears it up! Because its only purpose was to inform US, the audience, that she really IS the same woman Scottie fell in love with, and explain the mystery. Apparently, in the original novel, we don’t resolve the mystery until the end, but Hitchcock felt it was necessary for the audience to know what was going on now, or they would wonder why we should be interested in this new woman, and begin to lose interest.

You will notice that upon Scottie’s return, Judy’s association with green goes into overdrive, aided by the green neon sign outside her window that often fills the entire room with the color. I think by now we can intuit that red in this film indicates life and passion, and green represents a perverted, false, morbid fascination. It soon becomes apparent that Scottie simply wants to use Judy to recreate Madeline. There is a painful scene in a dress shop where Scottie insists on finding the exact grey dress Madeline wore, and Judy knows exactly what he’s doing. She fell in love with him when she was acting as Madeline, but now she can’t get him to love HER and not Madeline. He soon insists that she have her hair bleached blonde, saying “Judy please, it can’t matter to YOU.” He then pays for a complete makeover for her, including bleaching her hair, and she returns to the hotel in the complete getup—only she has defiantly left her hair down. Scottie insists she put it up. She goes into the bathroom to do it, and when she comes out, you’ll see she is presented with a green haze optically placed over her body [below], to show that Scottie is not seeing her clearly, but his distorted vision of her. There’s a good trick shot as they kiss, and suddenly he his back in the stable kissing Madeline, then back in the hotel room, obviously merged together into one big trick set.

So then Judy puts on a necklace—the same necklace Madeline wore, that is seen in Carlotta’s portrait. The film doesn’t tell us immediately, but Scottie understands then that Judy and the Madeline he knew are the same person. He demands that they go back to the tower, and forces her to go up, on the pretext that she will help him cure his vertigo. When he repeatedly says “This is my second chance!” it has much larger resonance for his story throughout the entire film. He gets her up to the tower—noting that he has been cured of his vertigo—and wrangles the truth from her. A hooded figure rises behind him, and Judy slips back, falling. We see that the hooded figure was a nun, but now Scottie, in recreating Madeline and her death, has repeated it.
< < < SPOILERS END

Seeing it this time, it was much clearer that the supernatural element set up at the beginning is very important to getting the audience to loosen up their expectations of the plot making strict sense [there are a number of humdinger coincidences], but also to get them to move attention away from the murder-plot level and open up to the spiritual and uncanny aspects of the story, which are what’s really going on. This is more like an E.T.A. Hoffmann story than any of Hitchcock’s other works, which is exactly what makes it so mysterious, special and enduring. It seems very personal and is unabashedly romantic. It’s interesting, looking back now, to recall that this was somewhat of a flop and considered VERY minor Hitchcock when it was first released. It seems that most critics missed that it was a departure, and were unable to open themselves to the uncanny nature of the film. One review said something to the effect of “The mystery is wrapped up 30 minutes before the ending,” implying that the whole aspect of Scottie’s psychological obsession was considered beside the point of the murder mystery—not the very point itself.

This film was based on a novel by the same team that wrote the novel that became Les Diaboliques, and there are conflicting accounts that this novel was written specifically knowing that Hitchcock, who admired Les Diaboliques, would pick it up and make it. I think Hitchcock got the better film out of it. This is one of those films that younger audiences, who grew up after this film’s innovations were completely absorbed into the work of other filmmakers, might have to watch a few times before what is special about it becomes apparent. But its romanticism and deviations from the rest of Hitchcock’s work is what makes it a personal favorite of so many, and provides so many admirers with favorite indelible moments from the film. This is one of those movies that everyone even minimally interested in film NEEDS to see.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, you must.

RELATED FILMS:
OBSESSION is Brian DePalma’s film obviously retracing the pattern of this one.
BODY DOUBLE is another DePalma film with heavy reliance on this film.
BLUE VELVET is steeped in a certain overheated atmosphere absorbed from this film.
WICKER PARK is clearly trying to recreate a Hitchcockian uncanniness on the theme of doubles, influenced by this film.